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The Penguins’ issues are clear, but solutions are not

The Penguins are in a bind with a well-defined set of issues, but a less clear way to address them at this point of the season

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The natives are starting to get restless.

“BUT…this team needs something. Anything. Some kind of new blood. The lack of energy is appalling.” - Josh Yohe, The Athletic, last night.

“But there are no adjustments to be made. They’re in cap purgatory, so likely won’t make a significant trade. They want to play their way, and that’s it. Their best strategy is to stay healthy, and they haven’t.” - Mark Madden, Tribune Review

You can go on down the line to any and every place that talks or writes about the Penguins and it’s about like that. Heaven knows on PensBurgh a common theme of the past six months has been being skeptical of the majority of Ron Hextall’s decisions on filling out the roster and then raising warning flags when such decisions haven’t been paying off.

Now the big question becomes - what can Hextall and the Penguins do about it, and perhaps more importantly, when can it happen?

The answers are a lot less clear.

The NHL trade market is stopped up with the majority of the league over the upper limit of the salary cap. This includes Pittsburgh, who have been in LTIR category for 67 of the 108 days of the league’s season so far and counting.

Very few trades of significance have happened around the NHL this season as a result, combined with the fact that only a handful of teams don’t have aspirations at this point of making a run for a playoff spot.

That will change as the March 3rd trade deadline approaches. It’s already approaching, being five weeks from today.

For now, the Penguins have been in survival mode, juggling and trying to hold on while dealing with major losses over the last two months with players like Kris Letang, Jeff Petry and Tristan Jarry have been in and out of the lineup.

The results have been fair, Pittsburgh is 3-0-3 in their last six games. That record becomes a less convincing 5-4-3 in the calendar year of 2023, which makes for only an 88-point season pace.

Still, the Pens are seventh in the Eastern Conference in points percentage today, thanks to a strong stretch of play from mid-November to mid-December. They have banked enough to be in a fairly safe spot at the moment. Will that hold over the next 15 or 20 games? That remains to be seen and is subject to change.

The issues that were apparent early in the season remain just as problematic, and aren’t likely to get better. The Penguins don’t have any sort of third line to speak of. Jeff Carter is a shell of his former self on the ice and has been pushed to the wing. Brock McGinn is now in a career long 15 game goal drought, cooling off after what was a very strong but unsustainable start. Teddy Blueger’s play and performance has fallen to replacement levels in the last 12 months after returning from a broken jaw.

Danton Heinen has flashed lately, but is a known player to run hot and cold — with the cold stretches being far more common than not. Ditto Kasperi Kapanen, who has been mitigated to an 11-minute per game bit player and been a major disappointment outside of a handful of great games.

On the brighter side, Drew O’Connor’s recent play has been encouraging. Ryan Poehling has been serviceable in a fourth line role. When healthy, Josh Archibald has been too. That’s a very limited amount of support, however, in the big scheme of things.

Beyond the forward group, the Pens have been stung by the continued drop off of Brian Dumoulin. That leaves them with exactly one left handed defender trusted to play a role of significance.

In net, Tristan Jarry’s injury woes have continued. When he’s played, he’s been the type of top-tier goalie in the league with a .921 save% and a 16-5-5 record that paces to an 117-point season. But in a fit of deja vu, Jarry has been in the medical area and absent from games when it’s mattered, like the majority of this January stretch of games. Without Jarry, Pittsburgh’s other goalies have a combined 8-10-4 record on the season.

Ideally, the Pens could use an external upgrade for any area on the ice. Realistically, whether it’s due to salary cap considerations or the low likelihood of making tough decisions on valued members of the team (Carter, Dumoulin), it doesn’t look possible.

Hextall is known as a manager who quietly evaluates, observes and then suddenly spring into action. For his knocks of being inactive, the add of Carter in 2021 came out of left field and proved to be a short-term great decision. The same can be said about the 2022 move to add Rickard Rakell.

When Hextall has acted in-season, the results have been positive. Now it’s a waiting game to see what he can do ahead of this deadline.

Predicting just what that could be and the timing of when becomes the more difficult exercise. For a while, it seemed the Pens’ course of action, chosen or not, was to attempt to weather the injuries and see what they’ve got as the deadline draws closer. As that has happened, the issues have become clear.

The exact way to solve all of these issues, however, is not so easily defined. It’s not practical for Hextall to dramatically re-shape what he has on hand. However, in order for the Penguins to do more than scrape into the playoffs as a wild card team and be little more than warm up fodder for a division winner, it’s clear that something has to give and change.

When? Where? How?

We’ll find out in the next five weeks.